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The BBC's Malcolm Brabant
"So much has changed since Slobodan Milosevic has gone"
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The BBC's Bill Hayton
"International peace keepers are ready to receive hundreds of surrendering Albanian rebels"
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Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 18:48 GMT 19:48 UK
Serbs retake Kosovo buffer zone
Serbian flag
The Serbian flag now flies in the buffer zone
Serb forces have taken control of most of the remaining part of a buffer zone separating Kosovo from the rest of Serbia.


The area has been a base for ethnic Albanian guerrillas for the past 16 months, but there is virtually no resistance now as most of the rebels have withdrawn.

The operation to resume control of the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia has the backing of the Nato-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, K-For.

Nato imposed the zone at the end of its 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia to protect international peacekeepers and Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.

Booby traps

Some troops came under fire, but there were no casualties in what was considered to be an isolated incident.

Reconnaissance soldiers scoured the area for mines and booby traps left behind by the Albanian guerrillas.

One tank was damaged when it hit a landmine.

Yugoslav authorities denied Albanian accusations that they had killed a prominent guerrilla commander during the operation.

They said Ridvan Cazimi, also known as Commander Lleshi, was shot dead in infighting between Albanian factions.

Stability

The return of Serb troops is being seen by the international community as an important step towards bringing peace and stability to a volatile and dangerous corner of the Balkans.

A Serbian special police team member flashes a three finger salute while approaching a former Albanian rebel stronghold
The occupation was largely without incident
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic also hailed it as a great achievement.

"It is a sign that democratic forces trust us and a sign that we can achieve more with political tools and methods than through violence," he said.

Over the past two months, the Yugoslavs have already deployed in much of the 5km (3 mile) zone, but the last part is the most sensitive because of the rebels' presence.

Before the troops moved in, many of the Albanian fighters had already left their hilltop hideaways and handed over their weapons to K-For.

Militant on the loose

However, uncertainty still surrounds the most militant Albanian commander, Muhamed Xhemaili.

Albanians in Bujanovac
Many Albanians left ahead of the Serb occupation
Unlike other Albanian leaders he refused to sign the peace deal which is supposed to demilitarise the Presevo Valley and has paved the way for the Serb re-occupation.

Mr Xhemaili's whereabouts is unknown, but there is speculation that he has escaped to Albania.

More than 50 of his men surrendered to K-For earlier this week and handed over four truckloads of arms and ammunition.

Nato issued the Serbs with strict rules of engagement and said it was confident that the joint army and police force will act with restraint.

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See also:

11 Mar 01 | Europe
The rebels' agenda
29 Nov 00 | Europe
Presevo's uneasy peace
16 Feb 01 | Europe
Serbs die in Kosovo bus blast
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